07 Apr 2014
In an interview before the London Olympics, Lauren Wells’ (nee Boden) coach challenged a Herald Sun journalist to pen his article without mentioning two-time hurdling world champion — and recent bobsledding convert — Jana Pittman.
Needless to say, the journalist failed. It was as predictable as it was understandable.
When Wells runs it’s as if you’re watching Pittman in her world-beating heyday. Her stride is long and silky — legs slicing through the air with effortless intensity — while her body stands tall, narrow to the wind. It’s a display of technical brilliance — but one Wells may never be able to fully own.
Seven-time national champion in the 400-metre hurdles. Dual Commonwealth Games representative. Olympian. And still in Pittman’s shadow — for now at least.
For the first 10 minutes of our chat the name hangs stubbornly in the air. She Who Must Not Be Named. So it is somewhat surprising that when Pittman is finally raised, it’s by Wells.
‘There are always comparisons drawn with Jana because we look similar, we run similar. It’s to be expected,’ Wells, 25, says generously. There’s no hint of resentment in her words — instead they are delivered with a quiet, confident sense of self that’s fitting for her good-natured approach to sport, and life more generally.
‘I’ve always said to people that I’m not the next Jana, I’m the first Lauren.’
‘And no, I won’t be taking up bobsleigh,’ she adds with a laugh.
Today, Wells is without her signature sunglasses. The Canberra native, who began hurdling at the age of five, refuses to train or compete without them. Purple, orange, fluoro yellow — these futuristic frames wrap around her face like a protective helmet — shading her from glare and, I suspect, growing expectations. ‘It’s a comfort thing,’ she admits.
Instead I am met with a pair of striking and expressive eyes. From my position on the other side of the table there’s no mistaking her for anyone else. This is Lauren Wells — and she doesn’t hold back as she recounts a career that, surprisingly for her youth, began in 2006 at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
‘That was a huge achievement for me,’ she says of making the national team at 17. ‘But I then had some lean years where I didn’t travel much, didn’t make teams. I wasn’t not achieving, but my focus was on building a base.
‘My coach Matt [Beckenham] and I always planned for 2010 to be my breakout year — for people on the world stage to take notice.’
With a fourth place at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 — an impressive result despite missing the podium — and appearance at the 2011 world championships, they have largely succeeded.
It was only an ill-timed — and, as she discovered later, underestimated — knee injury that prevented Wells from making a bigger impression at her first Olympics in 2012. ‘I felt like in the lead-up to London I was running well, but every race something would go wrong,’ she recalls. ‘I was constantly asking Matt “what is wrong?” I was supposed to be in the best shape of my life!
‘Obviously it was my knee, but the power of the mind is an incredible thing. You can go into denial sometimes.’
Wells still managed to reach the semifinals — a result she says showed her ‘I know what I’m doing out there’ — but it’s clear this determined competitor had a top-eight performance in mind.
Searching for ‘bling’
Almost two years after London and you sense Wells is on the cusp of something big.
Everything began to change last year. It was at a minor meet in Belgium in July that Wells ran a personal best time — her first for more than three years. ‘There was a girl ahead of me in the final stretch and I thought to myself: “You can either take the easy way and play it safe like you always do, or if you want to beat this chick you need to go for it.”’
A quick change to her stride, and the clock flashed 55.08 seconds. ‘And funny thing was, it didn’t feel that amazing,’ she says with a smile.
It was a revelation for Wells — a self-confessed perfectionist who has spent much of her career chasing ‘the perfect race’ — and came at an ideal time.
Wells is now entering the second stage of her career and is at an age when female hurdlers begin to hit their stride. The current Olympic champion, Russia’s Natalya Antyukh, was 31 when she won in London, while Debbie Flintoff-King was 28 when she claimed Australia’s only gold medal in the event — the same age Wells will be in 2016.
Wells and her coach see 2014 as a test year. They are taking a new approach heading into the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July, with the aim to peak only once this year rather than the (for athletes from the southern hemisphere) traditional two. So far, so good. Wells claimed a record-equalling seventh national title on Sunday — and a spot on the national team — to place her on par with Flintoff-King.
It’s a strategy with one goal in mind. ‘I want some bling,’ she says light-heartedly. But there’s no doubting her determination — Wells is intent on claiming a piece of Commonwealth silverware.
Whatever happens in 2014, Wells has longevity in mind. ‘I want to be in the sport for a long time,’ she reveals. ‘There’s no other things on my mind. Just athletics, and I’ll keep going for my goals.’
In that time, Wells may see women’s sport gain greater recognition — though her opinion on this is characteristically measured. ‘There’s such a huge tradition and history of men in sport — that’s where it all started — so I guess we just need to realise it’s going to take time for women to be on a level playing field.
‘If we can all do our part to raise our profiles and gain exposure, then hopefully someone out there will take a leap of faith and back us.’
This is exactly what Wells will be doing as she continues to build her name as Australia’s first — and only — Lauren.